Economic growth may compromise science

5 Sep 2005

Narrowly linking science with economic growth may undermine scientific endeavour and erode public trust in scientists, the president of the British Association for Advancement of Science (BA) has warned.

Giving his presidential address at the launch of the week-long BA Festival of Science in Dublin this morning, Professor Robert Winston warned the growing commercialisation of science was threatening its independence and traditional raison d’etre as existing for public benefit.

“Once the pursuit of science becomes heavily geared to profit, scientists may be compromised. They may be perceived as having vested interests and not working merely for the public good,” he said, citing the example of genetically modified crops and US chemicals giant Monsanto a decade ago.

He added: “Scientists need to be more aware of the dangers and academic disadvantages of commercial interests, and recognise that conflicts of interest may occur. Of course, we should not abandon commercial pursuits but we must be cautious where necessary and we need to be prepared to declare our commercial interests openly and freely.”

Winston, a leading human fertility expert and well-known TV presenter, also said the linking of university research to commercial return had the effect of dumbing down some of the research, in that funding for some importance basic research projects was being withdrawn because they were not producing any financial gain. “University research may increasingly be focused on what is likely to produce an income rather than on what is intellectually most challenging,” he contended.

Winston emphasised the problem was not limited to the UK; Ireland too was in danger of turning science into a business. “Funding of science to make our respective countries ‘competitive’ is to be welcomed, but it has its downside. Science is no longer seen as an essential part of our culture or as an important expression of essential human inquisitiveness. This has grave dangers for science, though scientists often forget this. It means some expensive scientific subjects — astronomy, for example — may be increasingly underfunded because they are perceived as useless or not producing sufficient economic returns.”

While acknowledging the “huge benefit” that science had brought to society, Winston said scientific research should not be unfettered but required careful and responsible management. Without this, it not only risked doing great harm to the planet but created a wedge between scientists and the ultimate owners of scientific research — the general public, he claimed. “Even in the long established democracies, people do not feel they have ownership, control or even much influence over the technologies that are exploited by their governments and by commercial enterprises,” he said.

For scientists to better appreciate the social implications of new technology, he said every university teaching science should include compulsory ethics modules.

In a comment that will strike a chord with third-level colleges here, Winston also said it was not enough for the UK government to increase funding for science; it must be accompanied by a parallel increase in university funding. “Young scientists in universities suffer great uncertainty about their careers, which is a major disincentive for those key young people. If the university sector is to be expanded as the government intends — with the stated objective of higher education for 50pc of school leavers — it has to be funded. If the Irish and British Governments seriously want an advanced, competitive and healthy society, this must mean more recognition of the social as well as the economic value of a university education. And they must pay for it.”

More than 300 scientists and 3,000 visitors are expected to attend events at the BA Festival of Science, which is being held in Dublin for the first time in almost 50 years. The event aims to foster a greater understanding of the value of science and technology.

By Brian Skelly